A master basketmaker, Henry Jake Arquette specializes in the utility baskets traditionally made by the Haudenosaunee Mohawks—pack, laundry, picnic, wedding, and corn washing baskets woven out of black ash. This art form was traditionally carried out by men due to the labor required to pound the black ash logs into splints for the baskets, and today Arquette is one of the few individuals who knows not only how to perform this work, but also how to locate the correct black ash trees that face environmental threats.
Arquette, whose Mohawk name is Atsienhanonne which means "fire keeper," was born in 1931 and grew up on the Akwesasne Reservation, located along the St. Lawrence River in the far north of New York State bordering Canada. He learned to make baskets from his father and grandfather and recalls that as a child he could hear the sound of men pounding black ash logs to make splints for the baskets from miles around. Forgoing power tools for the implements that were passed down to him by his father and grandfather, Arquette creates his utility baskets out of black ash splints with sturdy handles made of white ash.
A retired ironworker who spent much of his career working on bridges and skyscrapers across the country, Arquette supplemented his income during hard times by making and selling his baskets. In 1993, Arquette retired from ironworking and began making baskets full time. Today he is a revered community elder, and his skills as a master basketmaker are known across the region. He has mentored others in the art form and taught at the Akwesasne Cultural Center in Hogansburg, New York, for 25 years. His baskets are in collections all over the world including the National Museum of the American Indian.
In 1994, he and other Mohawk basketmakers received the Traditional Arts of Upstate New York’s North Country Heritage Award, and in 2004 he was recognized individually with the same award. His baskets are in collections around the world, including the National Museum of the American Indian.
Environmental threats such as over-harvesting, pollution, insect infestation, and plant disease have threatened the black ash trees on which this art form depends. Arquette has played an advocacy role in protecting this resource. He was recognized by the National Aboriginal Forestry Association with the Ross Silversides Forestry award in 2001.
Martha Cooper Photo | Courtesy of TAUNY Archives
Interview with Henry Arquette by Josephine Reed for the NEA
September 17, 2014
Edited by Lindsay Martin
NEA: Where were you born?
Henry Arquette: I was born on the Canadian side of the reservation, but my father was an American. We came over on the American side and I grew up on [this] side [and] went to school there.
NEA: Did you watch your father making baskets when you were a kid?
Arquette: Oh yeah, I did. Most of the time I seen my grandfather making basket, [but] I wasn’t really watching. Then my father got in there and made baskets and he taught me the rest.
NEA: So were you interested when you were a kid?
Arquette: Yeah, my grandfather was the one that got me interested in it and from then on I always wanted to. I had figured on doing it after I retired from my line of work.
NEA: And you were a steel worker for 43 years. Where did you travel?
Arquette: All over New York State, and I traveled as far as Houston, Texas. I helped build Newburgh Bridge. Newburgh Bridge and worked around New York. [I worked on] the Unisphere.
NEA: The Unisphere for the World's Fair?
Arquette: I worked on that, yeah. That's about 100 feet in diameter.
NEA: What was that like? Was it scary, was it exhilarating, or were you just used to it?
Arquette: No, no, we're used to it. If you're scared, you're not going to make it that far.
NEA: Were you scared the first time?
Arquette: Yeah, the first time. If you can get through it for a while and start learning how to do the work then it goes easy. But it's best to work with somebody that knows what he's doing.
NEA: You were traveling all the time, so you weren't back home that often. Did you keep up making baskets while you were working as a steel worker or was that too difficult?
Arquette: No, no, I just did steel work. Because that wasn't the main thing in my making a living; it was the iron work that we were living off from. And after I finished doing that then I went back to my basketmaking to kill time, give me something to do.
NEA: Could you take me through the basketmaking process? You literally go out and pick out the trees. What kind do you pick?
Arquette: Two different kind of trees—black ash and white ash. Black ash is the one I use for splints and white ash is for the rims and handles because it's stronger.
NEA: First you pick out the tree, and then?
Arquette: I pound it. You take an axe and you hit the logs. You start from the small end, you hit it about three, four times because they vary. Some of them come off harder and some come off easy. If the layers are thick, it'll come off harder and you wouldn't want to take any more than four pieces to pull that out, because if you do that, if you take too much, you'll probably split the last one that's coming up. You got to pound it real good to get good splints.
NEA: What do you do next?
Arquette: Then whatever kind of baskets you're making, you cut them to that width, length, and everything. Then when you've got enough, you put it in the water overnight. The next day you start from the thin end. Bend it, split it. That's when you weave it, when it's still wet.
NEA: And what kind of baskets do you make?
Arquette: I make work baskets, not the fancy baskets that women make. I'm leaving that for them, because they can do that much better than I can. It's hard to get the splints ready, thin it down, and shave it down—both sides you shave down. Then you make weaves. On a laundry basket, the weaves are heavy twine and it's the whole length of the log. [If] the log was 10, 12 feet, something like that, and you get maybe four pieces of it, that's how much you can pull because it gets heavy after. Another thing too, we usually split it before we start cutting it, then we shave the rough part off. Then we use the gauge and make the weaves thin. Then we're ready to start weaving.
NEA: So a laundry basket is pretty sizable. That's a lot of wood.
Arquette: It is a lot of wood. My kind of work is time-consuming because when I get it wet and get it to the size I want it, then I got to wet it again when I bend it to make the shape of a basket I'm making. You make the shape of the basket before you weave it.
NEA: And you use black ash to make those. Tell me what the white ash is for.
Arquette: That's for when I put the rim on. What I got to do before that, I got to let it dry. I get a wooden wedge with a light hammer, pack the weaves down right from the bottom to whatever height the basket is. Sometimes you don't want to get it higher—I can just use that wedge and pull the weaves down and then it's got to be tight.
NEA: This is the way your father made baskets.
Arquette: That's the way he made baskets, [and] my grandfather, nothing changed. There's not too many people can do that, they don't like the work.
NEA: It's hard work.
Arquette: It is. I teach classes too. Some of them come [to] one class and it's too much work for them, they don't come back. The ones that stay are interested in making it. I get more women basketmakers than men. They can do the kind of baskets I make. Some just want to make one basket and say, "I made this," and that's the end of it. You don't really have to be that strong because everything's thinned down when you shape it. You wet it and you can bend it easy without cracking it.
NEA: Now when you have students, do they go to the tree, do they pound?
Arquette: No, they don't do that. We have guys that cut trees like that and they pound a log and they put it in bundles. Maybe four or five pieces they make. Roll it around and tie the ends; you can just tie that end and it's ready to sell. Because a lot of the guys do that, sell their splints.
NEA: So is there anybody who does it from soup to nuts the way you do? Pick out the tree, fell the tree?
Arquette: Not many.
NEA: One of your students is named Jack Johnson. Tell me about him.
Arquette: He was a very good student, he was interested in it, and I can tell who's interested and who isn't. He was interested in it, so I helped him out. He made good. Today he's on his own.
NEA: How old is he?
Arquette: Thirty-two, something like that.
NEA: So there is somebody in the next generation. That's a good thing.
Arquette: It is. I'd hate to see it disappear.
NEA: You also received an award for being an advocate for protecting black ash trees. Are they threatened?
Arquette: Yeah. Black ash is scarce on our reservation because everybody made baskets so they had to be cut and re-grow them again. But I think it's coming back. So what we used to do is go away to Canada, Maniwaki, it's about three-hours drive from home. We find somebody that's got a wood lot and you can get your splint logs from them. But they don't know how to hewn logs because they don't make baskets, so we buy the logs from them, we pound it and make our own baskets.
NEA: You make laundry baskets, you make picnic baskets. What's a wedding basket?
Arquette: A wedding basket is big and traditionally at home. He takes a wedding basket and she takes a wedding basket. One's got food in it and the other one's got material. Because he's supposed to plant and provide for them and she's supposed to sew and make clothing to dress them; that's how it goes. Very few people probably make clothes for their kids [now.] But years ago they had to do that.
NEA: Now the baskets you make, are these traditional to the Mohawk Nation, which is your nation specifically, or is it broader than that?
Arquette: It might be broader than that because there are not too many reservations that make baskets, just people down around Maine, up that way where they get a lot of black ash and that kind of wood. But I see they can't make baskets like I do.
NEA: Were you surprised when you got the phone call about receiving a National Heritage Fellowship?
Arquette: I was surprised. I never expected anything like that because when I made baskets it was helping make a living. That's what it was for.
NEA: What does it mean to you to get a National Heritage Fellowship? Are you happy for the recognition for the art?
Arquette: Yes, I am. Because I never thought they would go that far—I was surprised.